Synthetic fertilizers aren’t great for natural ecosystems, but they do help farmers produce the crop yields needed to feed the world’s skyrocketing population. Since major chemical companies began pushing fertilizers, farmers have been spraying their fields and hoping for the best. Over the past two decades, however, controlled-release fertilizers have become available with high-precision release formulas that are not only better for the plants but are arguably better for the planet.

Controlled release fertilizers contain nutrients in capsules instead of the soluble granules of conventional fertilizer. The capsules slow down the release of the nutrients, which gives the plant more time to absorb everything rather than having to take up the nutrients all at once. Recently, slow-release fertilizers have become even smarter. Companies like Haifa Group and ICL Specialty Fertilizers have capsules that release at different intervals depending on the soil conditions — such as temperature, acidity or moisture level.

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When combined with GPS sensors, soil quality mapping and artificial intelligence, precision farming technology can save farmers and neighboring ecosystems from serious fertilizer waste and pollution.

A recent study by Michigan State University revealed that smart fertilizers also benefit the planet. According to the research, precision fertilizers and remote sensing technology could save 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — the equivalent of 1.5 million cars per year.

The technology they studied identifies a farmers’ most productive land using historical yield data and fertilizer rates. With this knowledge, large-scale farmers can focus crop production and fertilizer use on only the most productive land and reduce their use of fertilizers on land where the crops simply won’t perform as well.

The researchers also suggest that farmers could use these least productive zones to develop “wild areas” specifically for important pollinators like the honeybee.

“Nobody wins when fertilizer is wasted on areas that won’t produce,” the Michigan State researchers wrote in the published study. “Once farmers identify these areas, they can both save money and help the environment.”

Via Scientific American

Image via Binyamin Mellish